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Serena Williams is traveling in time, chasing the past. It’s all about history for her now. But that’s not new. What was new from the Australian Open was that the present and the future have decided to finally start chasing her. And that came with an assist from the past.
They’ve all decided to stop cowering in the corner in fear of Williams and start fighting her back.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. With her 19th major title Saturday, when she beat Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), Williams passed Chris Evert and Martina Navratlova on the all-time list. Steffi Graf is the next, and final, goal with 22. (No one seems to count Margaret Court).
Is Williams the greatest player of all time already? If you look at video of Evert, you see that she wasn’t even playing the same game that Williams is. The racquets are different, the strings are different. And the training and body types match the equipment. It’s like asking who’s better: a badminton player from the 1980s or a tennis player from the 2010s?
Still, I’m going with Williams as second best and Graf as No. 1. Graf won more majors (22-19), way more non-majors (85-46) and spent more than 65 percent longer at No. 1 (377 weeks to 226). Too much emphasis is put on today’s only measure, major titles, as the measuring stick through history. But in this case, the numbers hit me about right, with Graf ahead of Williams, but with time for Williams to catch up.
As Williams has gotten older, she has started thinking about her spot in history. She now talks openly about wanting to catch Graf. Williams is 33, and not as consistent in majors as she once was. But what came out of the Australian was this: While Williams is focused on Graf as her only challenger, the present has decided to join in.
Here’s what I mean: My biggest complaint about women’s tennis is that almost all the women play exactly the same game. Bash into open space. The end. No touch, no nuance, no style. It rarely works against Williams, with her great serve, strength, guts and athleticism, particularly when she cares, meaning the majors.
I’ve wondered for years why no one tries to slice the ball into Williams’ feet to see if she can get out of the way, rather than run something down. Or at least, why no one tries anything at all. ANYTHING! When plan A isn’t working, these women try Plan A. They don’t have a Plan B.
But we saw a much more gutsy approach in the semis from American teen Madison Keys — the future? —
who beat Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams and took two giant steps toward being the real deal.
I think Keys’ new coach, and Williams’ old opponent, Lindsay Davenport helped invent the gameplan to beat Serena. Keys bashed the ball straight at her. If this were boxing, Keys was telling Williams, “I’m going to stand in front of you and punch you in the face. See what you can do about it.”
After Williams won the first set, Keys spaced out for a few games. It tennis terms, it’s called going walkabout. That is a flaw she has to work out.
Williams handled a new challenge but did have trouble getting out of the way. Once, Keys hit the ball so hard at her that it nearly knocked Serena over backward. It’s a test of her footwork, not her footspeed.
And then in the final, Sharapova, the present, challenged her footwork even more.
The Williams-Sharapova rivalry has had nothing to do with tennis and everything to do with race and who’s getting more attention and endorsements. Sharapova beat Williams at Wimbledon a million years ago and has lost every time since.
All these years, Sharapova has followed the pattern of women’s tennis, blasting into space and hoping Williams couldn’t run the ball down. But on Saturday, it looked as if Sharapova had learned something from Keys. She pounded the ball right at Williams. And then she also hit three or four dropshots. On two of them, Williams came charging in so out of control that she fell down.
She also took full swings at the ball from just off the ground, right close to the net. That means she didn’t know what to do. I honestly cannot remember if Sharapova, in 10 years of losing to Williams, had ever hit one dropshot her way. But if you drop Williams, then come in and cover the crosscourt shot, it is going to be a problem for Williams, while falling down and taking a crazy overswing, to hit down the line over the high part of the net.
Is women’s tennis actually about to start developing, gulp, a gameplan against Williams? Sharapova has to know now that she can beat Williams, after coming so close in the second set while Serena played well.
Serena had to raise her game, which was an amazing thing to see. I want to see more. So it was actually one of her most impressive tournaments. And it will only make Williams’ fight with Graf more difficult, while she has to fight off the ages, too. History isn’t just going to hand Graf over for free, you know.